Tuesday, April 26, 2011


After enjoying Ludmilla Ulitskaya's trip to New York, we found this review of Daniel Stein, Interpreter in the Daily Beast incredibly eloquent. Enjoy!

This weekend: a novel of confused religion, one man looks out for fires in the American West, how Hollywood went mad on communism, and the lessons from Hezbollah's wars.

A Faith Without Boundaries

In a time when it is fashionable to define ourselves by identity, Ludmilla Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a refreshing affirmation of the beauty of hybridity. Though I had not heard of her before now, Ulitskaya is Russia's bestselling novelist; Daniel Stein had already sold over 2 million copies before being translated into English, and is the winner of Russia's Best Book Award. Ulitskaya is the author of 14 books, including The Farewell Party, Medea and Her Children, and Sonechka, and she has also scooped up the Russian National Literary Prize, the Russian Booker Prize, the Penne Literary Prize, and the Medici Award, not to mention being a laureate for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize. Her immense popularity in Europe, juxtaposed with her relative obscurity in North America, highlights the paucity of contemporary Russian literature being published in the U.S. Hopefully, Arch Tait's translation of Ulitskaya's innovative Daniel Stein, Interpreter reverses this trend.

The title defines her protagonist as an interpreter, but the central idea of the book is that his identity cannot be defined. Based on the real life of Oswald Rufeisen, Daniel is born a Polish Jew who, through a series of "miracles," escapes the Holocaust to become a Catholic priest in Haifa, Israel. He is still Jewish to Nazis (and most everyone else), but not to Israelis. The issue is the difference between religion and ethnicity. Daniel is ethnically Jewish, his nationality is Jewish—he is insistent on this point, but also that he is a Jewish Christian. A Jewish Catholic priest in the Holy Land? To many this seems crazy, but for Daniel this makes perfect sense. Since Jesus was Jewish, Daniel believes that only by performing the Christian sacraments in Hebrew can one be a true Christian.

He forms a congregation that does just this, modeled on the early Nazarene church under the leadership of Jesus' brother James, when there was not much distinction between Jews and Christians, and when Christianity was more like a "Jewish Protestantism."

Daniel asks why people should seek Jesus "in church doctrines which appeared 1,000 years after his death?" He points out that the similarities between the early church and Israeli kibbutzers, Soviet communists, the Druze, and Hassidism, blending the identities by which people divide and define themselves.

As the "Interpreter" of the title suggests, the mutability of language also plays a major role in Ulitskaya's message. Daniel is known for being a builder of bridges between people who do not understand each other, due to his talent of speaking many languages. He was able to escape the Jewish ghetto because he spoke Polish without a Yiddish accent. He survived by serving as a translator for the Gestapo, which allowed him to organize the escape of 300 Jews, some of whom become characters of the novel. Daniel describes the Holocaust as an "opposite miracle" where "the supreme laws of life were being violated and a supernatural evil was being perpetrated which ran counter to the fundamental order of the world."

It is during the Holocaust, hiding in a nunnery, when Daniel finds faith in Jesus. He becomes Christian because, unlike Moses, Jesus places Love over Law. Faith, the "personal secret of each one of us," is the meat of the issue; Daniel is supremely interested not in what Jesus preached but "what he believed in." Daniel is an unusual priest, however, as he gives rides to Hassids on his Vespa and calls himself a "great connoisseur of women." His controversial mission is to create a Christian union of all denominations for communal prayer. Rather than support the two state proposal, he believes only a joint Jewish-Arab state will survive because the "borders are not territorial but in the recesses of people's minds."

The subtitle of the book is "a novel in documents." Accordingly, Daniel's story is told through diaries, recorded conversations, interviews, lectures, letters, archives, and postcards. These do not appear in chronological order, but jump around from 1948 to 2006 to 1971, from Moscow to Boston to Friedburg. The novel is meticulously researched, providing sketches of the historical development of Christianity and its separation from Judaism, as well as ancient and modern Israeli history. It becomes a collage about a man who "lived in the presence of God," a man who "bridged the unbridgeable gulf between Judaism and Christianity with his personality." Once Daniel dies, this bridge dissolves. Identities are reestablished according to gender, nationality, citizenship, educational level, professional affiliation, political affiliation, religion, and the like. To Daniel, these divisions of identity are the point from which all human problems arise.

The one line that summarizes the whole of the book is spoken by an ancient woman who is the only remaining Jew in Daniel's native Polish town. She says: "I wish more people were good and that there were no wars, that's what I have to say to you." Ulitskaya's intriguing book ultimately says that if we all acted more like Daniel Stein, that woman's wish would come true.

Randy Rosenthal, Contributor

No comments: